Canastota starts tradition of hosting high school graduation at Boxing Hall of Fame


CANASTOTA — “Having persevered … having dealt with and fought through all the hardships … we are here,” declared Canastota High School Principal, Jay Altobello. “We are in the championship round of this pandemic, and we are knocking down yet another school year and another successful graduation ceremony.” 

Altobello addressed the assembly, including the 91 members of the Canastota High School Class of 2021, family, faculty, district dignitaries and the staff of the International Boxing Hall of Fame as the Canastota Central Schools district partnered with the IBHOF - which has called the pastoral upstate New York village home since 1990 - to celebrate the district’s 140th Commencement Ceremony on, Friday, June 25, at 6:30 p.m. on the grounds of the internationally renowned venue – a first-ever departure from the tradition of hosting the commencement at the school. 

The commencement ceremony and its beloved local venue were so well received that both organizations announced with excitement the decision to host the 2022 Commencement Ceremony again at the IBHOF, in what could be viewed as the advent of a new and exciting tradition galvanizing two great sources of community pride for Canastota – its world-known sports venue and its graduating seniors.

Both Canastota Central School Superintendent, Shawn Bissetta, and IBHOF Executive Director, Ed Brophy, said they couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome of last month’s event and look forward to repeating that success next year. 

Bissetta confessed to having the idea to host the high school’s commencement ceremonies at the lofty locale since taking office two years ago. 2021 saw the convening of remaining pandemic restrictions and renovations in progress on both indoor and outdoor athletic facilities, leaving the district challenged to find an alternative venue for their commencement celebration.

“We knew we did not want to leave Canastota for graduation,” Bissetta said. “We wanted to celebrate our seniors right here in our community, and we’re lucky enough to have this fantastic venue right here, so this was really the perfect year to try it out.”

“The Boxing Hall of Fame proved to be an exceptional venue.” said Bissetta.

“The entire staff could not have been more accommodating throughout the entire process,” Bissetta added. “It was a true celebration of what makes Canastota such a special place.” 

After senior members of the school choir performed the National Anthem, Altobello, in his opening remarks to the ceremony’s assembly, boasted of the overall senior class average of 83%; and offered particular praise to Valedictorian, Haley Michels, and Salutatorian, Kaitlyn O’Dell, both graduating with averages over 100%.  Michels will attend Hamilton College, majoring in Biology as a student in the pre-med program and O’Dell will attend SUNY Binghamton to study Industrial and Systems Engineering.  He shared that the Class of 2021 had collectively earned 612 college credits during their high school careers and – despite the extraordinary challenges faced at the end of their junior and throughout their senior year – that stands as the most college credits earned by any high school graduating class in Canastota’s history. 

Altobello also shared that this senior class won $85,000 in district and community awards and scholarships. 

The following members of Canastota’s Class of 2021 join Michels and O’Dell in earning an overall GPA of 89.5 or better and thus graduating with honors: Luke Ackerman, Carly Becker, Juliana Denney, Bailey Doxtater, Kendra Evans, Xavier Farwell, Hunter Michels, Ashton Morris, Jesslyn Niles, Carson Rowe, Sapphire Slawsky, William Snow, Emily Snyder, Taylor Stevens, McKenzie Tolen, Carolyn VanSlyke, Breannah Wagoner, Carley Wood, Nathan Wood.

The following graduates plan to enter the military to serve their country as the next step on their journeys:  Ayden Bartholomew and Maxwell Sharkey, who will serve in the United States Marines, and Connor White, who serve in the United States Navy.

Altobello shared how special this class is to him, as he began his tenure in Canastota the same year they began Junior High School. 

“I am so proud of you, today,” he professed as looked out upon the graduates.

Altobello paid homage to famed host of the ceremony with aptly woven metaphors throughout his address.

“So many people talk about how this year was a year of loss. Certainly that is one perspective,” said Altobello “but much has been gained,, too. We’ve learned a lot about our own true grit, about how we handle adversity, and who we are as individuals.”

“There will be times you will feel like you are getting totally beat up – nothing is going the way you planned it. But you have to keep fighting. You have to keep getting up. You have to make it to the middle rounds. You have no choice,” said Altobello.

“Did I do it right? Do I have any regrets? Hopefully your answer will be no. I have no regrets. I took my experiences and I did the best I could Fight hard. Fight all the way to the end. Win each round with pride and grit. If you lose a round, lose, then get back up, keep throwing punches and do the best you can. That’s all anyone can ask of you.”

Then President of the Board of Education, Bill Haddad opened his remarks to say, “many people judge their worth by what they do. It’s really the other way around. We do hard things – because we are worth it.” 

He challenged the assembly to ask – as they gathered there at the IBHOF – how many of them know WHY the Boxing Hall of Fame is there – in Canastota?  He goes on to share the remarkable story of IBHOF Executive Director, Ed Brophy – a fellow graduate of Canastota High School, Class of 1976 – and the mission he embarked upon in 1982 to memorialize the two world boxing champions who shared with him his home town of Canastota, NY - Carmen Basillo and his nephew, Billy Backu.  As fate would assist, the only shrine to honor the sport and its pugilists that existed at that time was the “Boxing Hall of Fame” established by Ring Magazine in 1954 and housed in Madison Square Garden, when some of the sport’s most storied bouts were battled. As Brophy’s efforts gained traction, the HOF at MSG was losing it, and disbanded in 1987. As the fading HOF briefly left a void, Brophy and his endeavor was poised to fill it.  Where he originally aspired simply to honor Canastota’s local boxing heroes, he achieved the honor of curator of all of boxing’s heroes when the International Boxing Hall of Fame opened its doors to the public in 1990 from its now official international headquarters … in that pastoral upstate New York village with a population of less than 5,000 people – Canastota – now forever known as the mecca for boxing fans to pay homage to all that is great about the sport and the contenders they love.

Valedictorian, Haley Michel, crystalized her message to her classmates with a quote from American poet, Sylia Plath:

I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.”

Salutatorian, Kaitlyn O’Dell, acknowledged Brophy during her address for opening the IBHOF to them.

“In such a crazy year, it’s very generous of you to allow us to have our graduation at such a wonderful venue,” said O’Dell.

“No matter how difficult your journey over the last four years has been,” said O’Dell to her fellow graduates, “I hope today you are able to look back with pride, and look forward with hope.”

“For the very first time, the Canastota Central School is graduating from the International Boxing Hall of Fame,” declared Bissetta in his address to the graduates, “I’ll be honest. This is a lot cooler than my high school graduation. Are you kidding me?”

Bissetta goes on to note that the Class of 2021 gathered that day on the same ground that the most accomplished people in their field are recognized and memorialized … the same ground where legends like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Canastota’s own legend, Carmen Basilio stood.

“Today, in this special place,” Bissetta said to the graduates, “YOU are the ones being honored.”

Bissetta goes on to compare life to a boxing match. “Defeat is not when you fall, but when you refuse to get up again.”

“No matter what, we are Canastota,” declared Bissetta. “We will always get up. And we will always answer the bell.”

Bissetta ended to invite Ed and Jeff Brophy to join him on the stage to present to each of them Certificates of Appreciation, bestowed by the Canastota Central School and the Canastota Class of 2021, to commend them for their extraordinary support of the district and – in extended their venue – to the Class of 2021.

After the presentation of diplomas to the graduates, the final address was given by the President of the Canastota High School Class of 2021, Luke Ackerman, who plans to matriculate to SUNY Binghamton this fall to study Mechanical Engineering.

“Stay strong and have wonderful lives,” said Ackerman.

As a surprise gift to the Canastota High School Class of 2021, the first and possibly inaugural class to graduate on the grounds of the IBHOF, now fellow alum, Ed Brophy, arranged for Hall of Fame Boxing Announcer, Michael Buffer, to remotely deliver a “send-off message” to the graduates. In it, Buffer sent his personal best wishes to the Canastota High School graduating class of 2021.

“Wherever your path leads, wherever it takes you, just remember this – let me paraphrase the great Walt Whitman, ‘Keep your face to the sun and your shadows will fall behind you,’ offered Buffer.

Then, in his signature volume and draw, he concluded to declare, “Ladies and Gentleman – Let’s get ready to Paaarrrrttttyyyy! Congratulations.”

“All the stars aligned for a great night,” Brophy said. “I just have so much pride in this district and for this class and this administration. We’re happy to do this for Canastota.” 

Altobello’s sharing of these words from Hall of Famer, Muhammad Ali best summed the theme of the day.

Ali famously said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said to myself, don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

“As you walk out of here today,” Altobello challenged the graduates, “live your life as a champion.

The inaugural class was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. It included Muhammad Ali.  It also included Carmen Basilio - from Canastota.


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